By Bob LeFavi, Ph.D. CSCS, USAW
The way your abs look is 80 percent a function of your diet and 20 percent a function of your training!
I can vividly remember the frustration I felt when being questioned by people about my abs. First, understand this: I never caused judges to faint at the sheer sight of my muscle mass. But what I always did have was chiseled abs. That was something judges knew they could count on seeing when I stepped on stage.
The frustrating part was stepping off-stage and having a dozen or so people ask, “Man, what do you do for your abs?” I would proceed to tell them about my diet. Invariably, they’d say, “No, no, what do you do for your abs?” I’d go through it again. The food, dieting behaviors, etc. Again, “No, man, what do you do?” Exhausted with the conversation, I’d blurt out, “OK, I do inverted crunches,” at which they’d walk away happy.
What many people sometimes fail to understand is this: At any given time, the way your abs look is 80 percent a function of your diet and 20 percent a function of your training! OK, so that’s my opinion, but I’m in very good company; ask anyone who’s ever achieved the chiseled ab look.
I’m telling you flat out: Most people have at least some decent abdominal muscle structure, regardless of their ab training routine (not that training the abs is unimportant; it’s vital for many reasons). It’s just that for many people, good, hard abs are hidden under a layer of fat. And no matter how muscular their abs become, they’ll never show them until they get their body fat percentage in the single digits, period!
Here are some basics, and some specifics, that’ll help you get started so you can show off the great abdominal muscles you’re working on. Here are 12 dieting tips you can chisel your abs on.
1. Limit and choose the right fat. First, cut down on fat intake! I know, I know, that’s not in keeping with some of today’s trends, right? Unfortunately, some people have bought into the “higher-fat diet” rantings of self-proclaimed gurus espousing dieting absurdities at the expense of the average Joe in the gym, who just really wants the truth. This campaign is a perfect blend of smoke and mirrors complete with the books, the personalities, and the appeal (what anyone wants to hear). What recommendations such as these (anything above 30 percent of calories from fat; 10 percent of calories from saturated fat) do not have, unfortunately, is scientific rationale. The problem these diets have is that no matter how many views and likes they get in a social media post, they cannot overturn decades of good research all showing the same thing: If you want to be less fat, you must eat less fat. Yep, dietary fat really does make you fat.
Americans are not getting fatter because they’re focusing on the wrong thing (eating less fat), when they should instead concentrate on reducing dietary carbs. Fact is, they’re not complying with low-fat dietary guidelines! Lack of compliance doesn’t mean the policy is bad!
Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirms that dietary fat really does promote fatness.1 Horton and colleagues found that excess fat intake resulted in fat deposition much more than excess carbs did. It’s as if the ingestion of fat itself turns on fat storage mechanisms within the body. This has been shown in both humans and animals.2,3 Give two identical groups of rats the exact same number of calories, but give one group its calories from a mixed diet and give the other group its calories from fat alone. After a few months, the fat-fed rats get fatter, yet the rats fed a mixed diet don’t. Simply put, fat calories – in and of themselves – have a true fattening nature.
But does that mean all fat is bad? No, in fact your body does need a small amount of fat per day. Be careful to choose the right fat: omega-3 fatty acids (the type found in fish), and oils like canola and olive are good choices. (This is why Mediterranean diets are so healthy).
2. Follow the “rule of thirds.” Try this: No matter where you are – restaurant, buffet, or at home – divide your plate into thirds. Fill one-third with protein sources (fish, chicken, turkey, etc.), and the remaining two-thirds with carbohydrate sources (sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, brown rice and the like). Caution: don’t fill up part of the two-thirds carb area with veggies. While they’re wonderful foods for vitamins and minerals, calorie-wise you should just consider them green water, as long as you don’t eat an entire bucketful.
And where do you put the fat? You don’t. Trust me, it’s on the plate without you making room for it.
3. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Try to eat small meals frequently. First, it’s much easier on your body if it gets fed on a frequent, regular basis. This prevents the blood glucose “highs” and “lows” – and consequently the intense hunger – you’re more likely to experience when eating three large meals per day.
Second, by never subjecting your body to a state of starvation, you’re not only helping reduce the tendency to pig out when you finally eat, you’re minimizing your body’s fat storage response to more infrequent, large meals.
Third, the digestion of small, frequent meals is easier, and the constant stimulation of digestive processes helps you keep food moving along your digestive tract at a good pace.
Additionally, studies show that your metabolic rate is elevated more often, and you burn more total calories (up to 10 percent more!) with continual feedings compared to when the same calories are ingested in larger, less frequent meals.
Now it’s pretty easy to sit there and nod your head in agreement, knowing that this eating schedule is best. It’s another thing altogether, however, to actually do it! Look, preparing for this type of meal schedule is not simple and it does take a little planning on a daily basis, but consider this: how much time do you put into your training? You should put at least that much time into your nutrition preparation!
4. Set a good macronutrient ratio. One thing you should keep track of on a daily basis is the complete carb, protein, and fat breakdown of your total intake. Although the optimal percentages will vary a little from person to person, you should shoot for an average of 65 percent of your total calories from carbs, 20 percent from protein, and 15 percent from fat. (If you try for it, you might come close, and that’s the point). Remember this 65/20/15 rule when reviewing what you eat on a daily basis.
5. Take a pill (or two). Assuming you don’t have a compromised cardiovascular system (high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.), you might want to try a fat-burning/calorie-burning supplement that includes caffeine. Also, consider a good, well-balanced vitamin and mineral supplement. Why? First, any time you reduce total caloric intake you run the risk of suboptimal nutrient ingestion. Second, people who exercise regularly have a greater requirement for many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
6. Drink, drink, drink. Even in an air-conditioned gym you can lose up to 2 liters of sweat per hour training intensely. Maintaining a regular fluid intake regimen during your training sessions is vitally important in the prevention of dehydration, something that can throw a wrench into your body’s lipolytic (fat reducing) processes. But, drink what? Water is best, but if you train hard for more than one hour, commercial sports drinks have been consistently shown to be better for maintaining hydration. Make sure they contain 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate as glucose polymer (maltodextrin, etc.) and at least some sodium and potassium.
7. Indulge once per week. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of research in conditioning, it’s that your body works in a complex series of adaptations. If you ask it to adapt to something that is very stressful for too long, it tends to adapt in a manner you don’t want. (That’s the “Exhaustion Stage” of Hans Selye’s famous General Adaptation Syndrome).
A case in point is the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL). Its chief mission in life is to store body fat (and men store body fat chiefly around the waist and abs). Well, what do you think happens to LPL when your body senses that it’s involved in long-term starvation by virtue of a very low fat intake? That’s right, it increases in concentration and activity; it’s looking hard to store fat. (Ever wonder exactly what the physiological reason is that people gain more weight when they go off a long-term diet?). Hint: You don’t want that to happen.
So, there really is some usefulness in not acting like a martyr. Once a week you should have a day in which you eat, relatively speaking, what you want. Not only does this minimize the mental stress often accompanying a long-term, very clean diet, but it also ensures that LPL levels don’t begin to rise.
8. Distinguish between physiological and psychological hunger. Physiological hunger, when your stomach growls or when you feel that little pang, represents the only true hunger sensation you should react to. The hunger you sense when you are reminded of food (via commercials, etc.), smell food, or reach for food in order to heal psychological hurts like anger and anxiety, does not reflect an actual need for food. The next time you reach for the refrigerator door, ask yourself which of these two “hungers” you’re responding to.
9. Use the fiber/fluid combination. Separately and together, fiber and fluid are important in fat loss. Fiber keeps food moving along your gastrointestinal tract. This maintains stable energy levels and reduces the effects of metabolic toxins associated with digestion.
Water is an important, but often-overlooked, nutrient required by our bodies. Drinking plenty of fluids is not only good for your health, it’s also good for your diet – it fills your stomach (especially when ingested with fiber) and can help curb your appetite. Next time you feel hungry at night, drink a glass of water and maybe add a handful of fiber cereal first; odds are you’ll fill up faster and not eat as much as you normally might.
10. Watch for food allergies. I have become convinced that many people have food sensitivities of which they are unaware. Do you have trouble with dairy products, getting too smoothed out after ingesting them? How about wheat? (Gluten is perhaps the most unnoticed food allergy).
When your diet becomes more refined, these sensitivities show up in a more pronounced way; they become more apparent, especially on your abs. Be on the watch for foods your body has trouble with. While digestive difficulties (bloating, stomach pain, etc.) are obvious signs, look for water retention and even depression as other signs. These foods may keep you from reaching the chiseled look you’re after.
11. Learn, learn, learn. Learn how to make the low-fat changes you’re committed to. Learn to read food labels with a pocket nutrition almanac at your side (every serious trainer should have one). For example, even though a food label indicates that the fat grams per serving are minimal, which could simply be due to a ridiculously small serving size, look for the following words in the ingredient list, no matter where they’re located: animal fat, cocoa butter, coconut or palm or palm kernel oils, cream, egg yolk solids, vegetable shortening, and the big one – hydrogenated vegetable oil. Also, pick up a few books or Google about how you can minimize high glycemic index foods and use spices, herbs and cooking techniques that’ll help you prepare more tasty, low-fat/fat-free foods.
You could start by trimming the fat out of your later meals because, though eating fat anytime is bad enough, taking in fat calories at night can be particularly counterproductive. (Not only is it so easy to underestimate fat content and calories, but your activity levels are greatly diminished at night, which makes fat storage more likely.) Then, you could start trimming the fat out of your earlier meals. Next, seek out the hidden fats in your diet, and so on.
12. Eat slowly and take breaks. You’ve just finished training and you’re starving. Before you dig in, take a deep breath and relax. Try to eat at a slow, leisurely pace. Studies show that this prevents overeating and promotes healthier digestion.
Also, taking a few short breaks during a meal will help you keep up with sensing how full you are; there’s about a 20-minute lag between the time when you’re full and the time when your brain realizes you’re full. It may be helpful if you eat with other people, where normal conversation will provide natural pauses during the meal.
Dr. Robert “Bob” LeFavi is dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. Previously, he was professor and head, Department of Health Sciences and Kinesiology at Georgia Southern University (Armstrong Campus), and professor of Sports Medicine at Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Georgia. LeFavi’s research and published work on training and nutrition have led to interviews on “CBS Evening News,” CNN and “Inside Edition,” and quotes as an expert in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and Parade. LeFavi is a former competitive bodybuilder who placed second in his class at the National, USA and North American bodybuilding championships.
1. Horton TJ et al. Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: Different effects on energy storage. Amer J Clin Nutr, 62:19-29, 1995.
2. Romieu I et al. Energy intake and other determinants of relative weight. Amer J Clin Nutr, 47:406-412, 1988.
3. [Chemistry/Food Sciences reviews]. Obesity: The role of fatty foods. Science News 138:238, 1990.